Can the Next Secretary-General Make a Difference? Humanitarianism & Development, Ideas & Operations

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center. 


THE 70th anniversary of the signing and entry into force of the UN Charter could, and should, have drawn attention to the 1942–1945 United Nations Alliance that gave rise to the world body and the fundamental underpinnings of contemporary global governance. While anniversaries may be artificial “hooks,” they are nonetheless reminders not to forget. The year 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th anniversary of World War II, while 2015 was the 200th anniversary of the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

These armed conflicts all led to experiments in international organization—the Congress of Vienna, the League of Nations, and the United Nations—after rampant nationalism and going-it-alone were exposed as empty strategies for postwar peace and prosperity. The irony, of course, is that 2016’s intractable threats to human survival with dignity—ranging from climate change and migration, to pandemics and terrorism—extend far beyond inter-state war, and all are beyond the capacity of the UN’s 193 Member States, no matter how powerful, to address on their own.

What remains unchanged since 1945 is that the policy authority and resources necessary for tackling such problems remain vested in individual states rather than collectively in intergovernmental organizations. The fundamental disconnect between a growing number of global challenges and our inadequate structures for international problem solving and decisionmaking helps explain occasional, tactical, and short-term local views and responses instead of sustained, strategic, and longer-term global perspectives and actions.

Yet, for many politicians, pundits, and the public (in the United States and beyond), the United Nations is now an after-thought—if a thought at all.

Meanwhile, scholars and diplomats are preoccupied with the global sprawl of networks and informal institutions, rather than the requirements for strengthened intergovernmental institutions—most especially the UN, headed by its Secretary-General. The contrast is thus stark, with the approach and operations of the wartime United Nations Alliance—namely, a misplaced enthusiasm for alternatives to systematic multilateralism.

The infatuation began a decade ago, when Anne-Marie Slaughter’s A New World Order (2004) viewed networks of various types rather than actual organizations as the key to problem-solving. Subsequently, Dan Drezner in a Foreign Policy blog and Stewart Patrick in a Foreign Affairs article proposed living with the sum of alternative arrangements, and dismissed the universal-membership UN as hopeless and hapless. Apparently, we can only aspire to a variegated institutional sprawl—or what they dubbed “good-enough global governance.”

Back to Table of Contents